Folk dancing icon and founder of the legendary Reda Troupe, dancer, choreographer and Olympic gymnast Mahmoud Reda died last Saturday at the age of 90. He was born in Cairo in 1930 and graduated from the Faculty of Political Science at Cairo University, where his father was head librarian. He was the eighth of ten children, and one elder brother, Ali, was a dancer who inspired him.
After representing Egypt in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki and graduating, Mahmoud Reda toured Europe with an Argentinian dance troupe. While working as an accountant for Royal Dutch Shell, determined to start his own troupe but lacking the necessary funds, he met Farida Fahmi – the sister of Ali’s wife Nadida Fahmi – at the Heliolido Sporting Club and they performed as a couple in the Soviet Union in 1957.
Together with Ali and his wife Farida, Mahmoud and Nadida (who was the troupe’s costume designer before she died in 1960) founded the Reda Troupe in 1959. With 12 dancers and 12 musicians, Mahmoud realised his dream of a modern Egyptian folk dance troupe aware of ballet and modern dance as choreographer while Ali worked as art director. Farida was the prima donna.
Speaking to Dina Ezzat in the Weekly last year to mark the troupe’s 60th anniversary, Fahmi recalled the troupe’s Cairo debut: “I remember it so well. It was 6 August 1959. We were all set for the show. We had rehearsed it so many times, perfected the costumes and decided on the makeup. We had put our hearts into the launch, and we were hopeful, but also of course anxious.”
In 1961 the Reda Troupe became a state sponsored company affiliated with the Ministry of Culture. According to Fahmi, President Gamal Abdel Nasser was himself a fan: “He attended one of our very early performances, and he liked what he saw because I think he appreciated good art. He took pride in the nation’s history, and he believed in art as an essential part of the country’s soft power.” These were years of enlightenment in which art was as appreciated and as promoted as it should be”.
But it was becoming part of a bureaucracy that led to the troupe’s long-term decline, with the artists turning into civil servants and the creative spark going out. Ali died of cancer in 1993. And so the story came to an end, but not before the Reda Troupe achieved great glory.
Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmi
Eager to produce a more lasting record of the troupe’s achievements, Ali had had ambitious plans early on. Three films were made starring the troupe: Agazet Nos Al-Sana (Mid-year Vacation) in 1962 and Gharam fil Karnak (Love at Karnak) in 1967 and Harami Al-Waraqa (Paper Thief, 1970), all directed by Ali Reda.
Mahmoud retired as lead dancer in 1972, continuing as a choreographer, by which time the troupe boasted 150 dancers, musicians and technicians. Performing – sometimes to world leaders – in New York and Beijing, the troupe made five glamorous world tours.
According to Fahmi, “It was Mahmoud who went through the many dance styles to design the performances, a hard and innovative labour that was done with passion and sincerity… There was something almost magical that connected all of us together: the choreography of Mahmoud, the costume designs of Nadida that my mother Khadiga executed to turn artistic drawings into dance costumes, and the inspirational art direction of Ali. There was also the unending support of my exceptional father Hassan Fahmi, a professor of engineering who shrugged off the disapproval of his own class in allowing his daughter, a graduate of the English Department at Cairo University, to become a dancer.”
From 1972 on, Reda taught dance. His second wife was a Yugoslav ballerina, Rosa Reda, with whom he had his only daughter, the celebrated actress Sherine Reda. He is also survived by Sherine’s daughter Noor Diab.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly